In the past few decades, the use of chemical weapons by rogue states such as Iraq, Syria, and North Korea has greatly eroded the international norms governing non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Although not as widely known and feared as hydrogen bombs, these weapons have the potential to be equally deadly—and far less controllable. Unfortunately, great powers often criticize these WMDs only when it suits them and ignore their own proxies’ uses of chemical weapons.
A history of creeping violations of international law has influenced the international community’s complex perspective on non-nuclear WMDs. Critically, these violations have not occurred in defiance of the supposedly norm-setting great powers. To the contrary, rogue states have often employed these weapons with the aid—or at least tacit acceptance—of one or more members of the United Nations Security Council. For example, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cooperated extensively with the Iraqi military and provided Saddam Hussein with vital information on Iranian facilities and defenses. The CIA did so with full knowledge that Hussein’s forces planned to bomb these areas with sarin gas, an extremely deadly toxin banned by international treaty.
However, the increasing use of chemical weapons is not exclusive to the Middle East. In fact, North Korean operatives used VX nerve agent in February 2017, in the blatant assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother. This occurred on Malaysian soil, an outwardly friendly country. Although China ostensibly offered protection to the victim, Kim Jong Nam, China also values North Korea as a buffer between its territory and U.S.-aligned South Korea.
Although this attack resulted in only a single death, it is more chilling than previous, larger attacks in an important way: it shows that chemical weapons have become so normalized that rogue states need not wait to use them in conventional war—they can now be employed for single assassinations, merely to make a point. If this pattern of normalization continues, one shudders to think where it shall lead. If the great powers of today continue turning a blind eye to their client states’ use of non-nuclear WMDs, then history will judge them harshly for the crimes of tomorrow.